As if there’s no pandemicOli and his clique’s seeming indifference to the raging coronavirus and unfolding tragedy is stark. Even as virus cases hit a new record of 7,137 and death toll clocks 3,325, political games continue.
As though there is no pandemic.
Nepal’s politicians continued their games of one-upmanship just as the Covid-19 raged across the country on Sunday, hitting 7,137, the highest daily count of new infections ever since the first coronavirus case was reported in January last year.
That the federal government led by KP Sharma Oli has failed to pay any heed to the deepening virus crisis is an understatement. After a series of dramas in Gandaki, Karnali and Bagmati provinces on Sunday, Oli spent the whole day in saving the position of his close confidant, Shankar Pokhrel, in Lumbini.
As a no-confidence motion was set to be tabled on Sunday afternoon at a special session of the Provincial Assembly, Pokhrel resigned earlier in the morning as chief minister and prepared to stake claim to the government again. He was eyeing a new wholly CPN-UML-led government in the province.
After what looked like a brief glitch in his plan, when an assembly member switched sides to join the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), Pokhrel, however, was reappointed chief minister.
The appointment followed an emergency meeting of the party’s Standing Committee called by Oli in Kathmandu and his subsequent visit to Sheetal Niwas to hold talks with President Bidya Devi Bhandari.
“Provincial chief Dharma Nath Yadav has appointed leader of the CPN-UML Parliamentary Party of Lumbini Provincial Assembly Shankar Pokhrel as the chief minister as per Article 168 (1) of the Constitution,” read a statement issued by Chiranjivi Poudel, spokesperson for the Office of the Provincial Chief. “Earlier today, Pokhrel had presented his claim to form a new government with the signatures of a majority of the Provincial Assembly members.”
Article 168 (1) says, “The provincial chief shall appoint the leader of the Parliamentary Party commanding a majority in the Provincial Assembly as the chief minister, and the Provincial Council of Ministers shall be constituted under his or her chairpersonship.”
Later in the evening, Oli told his Cabinet members that he would seek a vote of confidence on May 10.
President Bidya Devi Bhandari swiftly summoned the House of Representatives, which was prorogued on April 19, for May 10.
“Oli should have sought a vote of confidence within a month after the Supreme Court invalidated the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and revived the UML and the Maoist Centre. Oli’s plan to seek House confidence now reeks of a malafide intention,” said Chandra Kanta Gyawali, a senior advocate who specialises on constitutional law.
“He has no justification now as the Maoist Centre has not withdrawn support. He has so far been saying he still enjoys a majority because the Maoist Centre had not pulled out its support.”
Oli’s constant refrain ever since he dissolved the House has been that ‘there is a need for a fresh mandate from the people’. If Oli fails in the vote of confidence and opposition parties fail to garner enough numbers to form a coalition government, election will be the only way, as per the constitutional provisions.
Political analysts say Oli has a habit of not following a genuine political course. He sure has a trick up his sleeve in seeking a vote of confidence in the midst of this pandemic, according to them.
“If he genuinely wanted to prove that he has the confidence of the House, he should have sought it earlier,” said Shree Krishna Aniruddh Gautam, a political analyst and columnist for the Post’s sister paper Kantipur. “The move is intended at taking the country towards snap polls.”
Oli’s supporters say seeking the vote of confidence is a prerogative of the prime minister.
“There are suspicions all over that UML lawmakers could cross the floor given the situations in provinces including Karnali, Gandaki and now in Lumbini,” said Subas Nembang, deputy leader of the UML Parliamentary Party and a close aide to Oli. “The prime minister has the prerogative to seek the confidence of the House any time he wishes.”
But there are concerns. Yet another House dissolution could lead the country towards early polls. An election at a time when the country is battling the coronavirus, which is ravaging the country by the day, could easily be a recipe for disaster.
That Nepal’s politicians, starting from Oli, have been too slow to recognise the threat posed by the pandemic and that they have downplayed the deadly coronavirus has earned widespread criticism from various quarters, including doctors and public health experts.
A second wave was inevitable. When India started clocking over the 350,000 cases a day, the world was worried if the country of over 1.3 billion was emerging as a superspreader.
For a country like Nepal, which shares an 1,800-km-long open border with India, a sudden surge in Covid-19 infections was not a matter of if but when.
But the Oli administration decided to look away. Oli was too engrossed in his political games to realise that people were dying for the want of treatment, hospital beds and even oxygen.
Public health experts have long said the government missed what could be summed “a lull period”—when the cases were on the wane—to prepare for the second wave.
On Sunday, the Covid-19 death toll reached 3,325, with 27 fatalities reported in the last 24 hours.
The Health Ministry said on Sunday that 477 people have been admitted to intensive care units and 131 people are on ventilator support throughout the country.
According to the Health Ministry projection, the daily number of infections could reach as high as 11,000 by mid-July and the total number of infected persons could rise up to 800,000. Around 15,000 people might need intensive care beds while 45,000 might require high flow oxygen therapy, the projection says.
But neither Oli nor his confidants who lead provincial governments seem to be caring about the plight of the people.
In Lumbini, Pokhrel’s reappointment as the chief minister has raised many an eyebrow. After he was preparing to stake claim to the government, a Provincial Assembly member, Bimala Khatri, decided to join the Maoist Centre. That left Pokhrel with 40 seats in the assembly, one short of the majority to form a government as per Article 168 (1).
However, the UML claims it had “evidence” to show that Pokhrel commanded the majority.
Analysts say Oli’s indifference to the Covid-19 pandemic is stark, somewhat like Narendra Modi’s in India.
Many say Oli who once was never tired of criticising Modi is now emulating him.
Modi is facing criticism for his arrogance, ultrantionalist rhetoric and disregard for the people suffering from the virus. When India saw a decline in the number of Covid-19 cases, Modi and his ministers declared that they had reached the “endgame” of the pandemic. Until March, India was recording a modest 13,00o new coronavirus cases. By the third week of April, it crossed the 315,000 mark. And on April 30, India became the first country to record 400,000 new infections a day. The daily deaths are over 3,000 for the past few weeks, which many say is far fewer a number than the actual fatalities.
Modi and his ministers, however, continued election rallies, without wearing masks, and allowed massive religious gatherings, including the Kumbha Mela, a month-long Hindu festival that attracts millions of pilgrims in a small town of Haridwar.
Oli has been no different, say analysts.
“There are a lot of similarities between Oli and Modi,” says Geja Sharma Wagle, who writes on contemporary political and security issues. “Both are arrogant, they don’t listen to others and they have a strong penchant for peddling the ultranationalistic agenda.”
According to Wagle, Oli is even on Hindu appeasement politics.
“In a nutshell, Oli is following the Modi model,” Wagle told the Post.
Oli’s governance had always been in question ever since he returned to power in February 2018. The way he was trying to centralise power, shrink the civic space, muzzle the media and rule with an iron fist had caused concern among civil society members, the press and rights activists.
After he dissolved the House on December 20, the backsliding started—democracy-wise as well as governance-wise.
Even though the House was restored, Oli continued to justify his move. He continued to address gatherings of his party members, as if he was on an election campaign trail. He was busy inaugurating roads and other projects. Despite his own government issuing a strict guideline barring gatherings of more than 25 people, Oli inaugurated the Dharahara with pomp on April 24 in the presence of a big crowd. On April 21, he organised an elaborate event at Baluwatar to offer prayers to the idols of Ram, Sita and Hanuman that he sent to Thori in Chitwan where he plans to build Ayodhyapuri.
On Sunday, Oli’s another confidant, Bhanubhakta Dhakal, the tourism minister, who he had sent to Thori to consecrate those Ram, Sita and Hanuman idols, said he had caught Covid-19. Thousands of people had been invited to that event, and Dhakal was seen roaming around without wearing a mask.
Like last year, Oli again, just as the second wave was gradually making its way to the country, peddled unfounded remedies for the coronavirus, saying guava leaves would rid everyone of the virus almost instantly.
Oli, who has in the past made claims like Nepalis’ immunity power is strong enough to fight the coronavirus, last month said his government’s good policies worked well in winning the fight against Covid-19.
“The government’s right policies and approach led to a minimal loss of life and to the economy,” said Oli while addressing the nation on the occasion of the Nepali New Year on April 14. “There were many assumptions regarding the disease from the beginning. However, the government’s priority was to save lives.”
Just as the sudden fall in the number of Covid-19 cases had puzzled scientists in India, experts were baffled by the decline in new cases in Nepal too.
Public health experts had continued to send warning signals. Just as the government took a lackadaisical approach, people too started to become carefree. Festivals and parties were being organised as if the country had returned to the pre-pandemic days. People were too quick to shed their masks. Neither the people in power nor members of the public gave two hoots about physical distancing and safety protocols.
Despite the restoration of the House, opposition parties were at a loss, failing to figure out a way to unseat Oli. That emboldened Oli. Politically, he indeed emerged as a strongman.
“Oli ran after cheap popularity following in Modi’s footsteps through ultranationalist rhetoric and Hindu appeasement policy,” Hari Roka, a political economist, told the Post. “Modi's policy has plunged the entire India into a huge crisis and Oli’s policy is driving the country in the same direction.”
Amid shortages of hospital beds, oxygen and vaccines, the Health Ministry on Friday threw its hands up, saying the situation has become unmanageable.
According to Roka, Friday’s statement by the Ministry of Health shows Nepal is soon heading towards a similar crisis that India is facing at present.
Nepal’s coronavirus infection tally on Sunday reached 336,030, with the number of active cases standing at 48,711.
After widespread criticism that the government’s giving up its fight against the pandemic bordered on criminality, Health Minister Hridayesh Tripathi on Saturday put a message on his Facebook page, saying authorities were working to increase the number of beds and that they were in no way washing their hands of the problems.
But that was too little, too late.
What happened a day later, on Sunday, in no way could give any reassuring message to the people. Oli and his aides were back to their usual business.
While Oli is bent on clinging onto power and for that he is ready to take any step whether it’s illegal or unconstitutional, his disciples in provinces are doing the same.
And in the game of politics, everyone has failed to pay attention to the deepening Covid-19 crisis and the plight of the people.
No one knows how much worse India’s Covid-19 will get or how long it will last. And sufferings in Nepal are likely to be immense, not only because the two countries share a long open border but also because the leaders of the two countries share similar traits when it comes to the people and their plight.
Just the way Modi caused India to descend into Covid-19 hell, Oli’s dirty politics and apathy towards citizens is throwing Nepal into a crisis of unprecedented proportions, analysts say.
“You can draw several parallels between Modi and Oli. Both the countries have plunged into a deep crisis, and both the leaders are busy in their political games without an iota of concern for civilian lives and welfare,” said Shyam Shrestha, a political analyst who has followed Nepal's left politics for decades. “A radical leadership might be appealing to people for some time, but it never serves the people’s interest. Oli is not serving the people.”